The Art of Pho is a motion comicdirected by illustrator and animator Lois van Baarle, based on the graphic novel by Julian Hanshaw. You can watch the movie in eight episodes on artofpho.submarinechannel.com. If you're short on time, watch the trailer above.
Like all the best comics, The Art of Pho combines off-kilter characters – such as the hero Little Blue, who as well as being blue is somewhere between a pig and a dog in looks – with an unvarnished view of the world steeped in both hope and pathos (something we’ve seen a lot of recently in indie comics from the likes of Luke Pearson and Tom Gault).
The plot involves Little Blue, who boasts a childlike innocence and charm, travelling to Ho Chi Min City (aka Saigon) in Vietnam. There he learns how to make the perfect pho, the Vietnamese rice-noodle soup much enjoyed as street food. We also see how, glimpsing the city as a foreigner, Little Blue feels lonely and alienated as well as a sense of wonder about his new environment that only a stranger can truly experience, mirroring the sense of being an outsider that most of us experience at some point while growing up.
Here Lois charts the various phases of the graphic novel’s transformation into an animation with interactive elements, and recalls the many different approaches and techniques used by her team to bring Julian’s charming comic to the screen.
Here is a spread from the graphic novel in which Little Blue has just embarked on his career as a street vendor of Vietnam’s national dish, pho. What stands out is the unique, hand-drawn style and the different layers Julian incorporates in his comic. The drawings have a quirky feel and evoke the smells, sounds and sights of a bustling city. We really wanted to preserve all these qualities in our animated version.
The motion comic was to be broken down into eight brief episodes, which meant that the story had to be restructured and shortened. With a lot of material to edit down, we started with a rough storyboard that basically consisted of copies of the pages with scribbling on top. Panels were grouped together or crossed out to streamline the narrative. 0
Each scene consisted of a number of shots, with complex shots subdivided further into panels. Colour-coding was used to denote each of these and to circle and number different parts of the page. This process gave us our first indication of how the scenes would look and how long each episode would be.
The rough storyboard needed to be finalised and translated into a clear, easy-to-read reference sheet that could be used by every member of the team, from animators to interaction designers. For each episode, we made a list of scenes, shots and panels, each numbered so that every moment in the storyboard had a proper name (for example: ‘Episode 2, Scene 8, Shot 2’). This was crucial to create proper file names and project structures.
We also needed a document with additional information about how we would add animation and interaction to the story. We wanted to use a variety of techniques, ranging from full animation to the motion of simple cutouts to animated typography, as well as different interaction approaches. We created a list of these techniques and placed these on top of each scene with notes to indicate how the animation would be brought to life.
The production process started with creating the Photoshop files that would form the basis of all the animation work. We were lucky that Julian had created his comic in Photoshop and could hand us his original files, which were modified for the purposes of animation. But now everything needed to go into a 16:9 frame; layers needed to be either merged or separated from one another; to create a parallax motion effect, backdrops needed to be separated into layers to create foreground, middle and background.
The image above shows one of Julian’s Photoshop files. To ensure we had all the elements we needed for our animation, we split this up into three layers and created those parts of the characters and buildings that are not visible in the original drawing.
We used cel animation software TVPaint to animate characters and other foreground elements. It was a handy tool as it can import Photoshop files with the layer structure intact. You can see from the screen shot that the background is included in the file, along with an image of the original panel as reference material for the animator to work with. This allowed us to keep the style consistent with Julian’s artwork.
We chose After Effects to bring all of the animation together because it was useful for combining the 2D animation with the backgrounds, adding camera movements, using 3D layers for multi-plane effects, and using masks to animate panels and text.
It’s also useful because it lets you import a variety of files into one whole. For example, we could import the 2D animation as image sequences and adjust the frame rate easily. We could also import the Photoshop files in their entirety, preserving the order and size of the layers.
One of After Effects’ most useful features for animating type was its ‘Write-on’ effect. It allows text to materialise as if it was being written by hand, something we used for the ‘Anybody?’ text in one scene.
We also used simple transforms to animate the chunky block letters that Julian often included in the comic. Experimenting with keyframes and playing around with the anchor point, plus letting the letters shrink or grow, created fun effects. We also added floating and swinging effects to them.
We wanted to emphasise the scrapbook-like quality of Julian’s comic in our animated version. Animated textures helped us do this: by taking one large texture and breaking it down into parts, we made a series of images that we used to build a loop in After Effects, creating a moving version of Julian’s paper textures.
One example of this is that some pages in the book feature masking tape around the panels. We animated these with simple masks, placing an image of folded tape over the edge of the mask to make it appear as if it was rolling onto the image.
A separate set of elements were scripted for the interactive scenes. While I didn’t work directly on the interactive side of The Art of Pho, it was important for me to know what these elements were to ensure they were delivered as separate components for the interactive designers to work with.
In one scene which we called the ‘crowd game’, we see a large crowd with different people popping up from time to time. The user is supposed to click on them to grab their attention and try to sell them steaming hot pho.
The crowd needed to be an infinite loop since the length of the scene depended on the user’s clicks. The crowd members themselves needed to be rendered separately, as well as the panels that appear in response to clicking. The background and special interactive cursor were also animated assets that needed to be delivered to the interactive designer.
Music and sound effects were enormously important in giving depth and life to the animation. Many parts of the animation had fixed durations, but for interactive scenes, such as scene 9, sounds needed to be created separately and in loops to be synced with the interaction in Flash.
Everything was brought together in the form of a Flash website, where the ability to browse the site and navigate the animations was crucial.
About the artist: Lois van Baarle
Lois says she has been drawing since the day she could hold a pencil, and began making digital art in 2002. Upon leaving high school, she chose to study animation, graduating from the Utrecht School of the Arts in 2009. Since then she has been freelancing on a variety of illustration and animation projects. The Art of Pho “has been my most varied and interesting project to date”, she says.